Report: Cancer bears largest economic impact of all causes of death

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Cancer presents the greatest economic impact from premature death and disability compared with all other causes of death worldwide, and balancing the global health agenda to address cancer will save millions of lives and potentially billions of dollars, according to a joint report issued by the American Cancer Society (ACS) and Livestrong on Aug. 23.

The study—which also included the economic cost of all causes of death globally including non-communicable and communicable diseases in addition to cancer—found that in 2008, cancer accounted for $895 billion dollars in economic losses from premature death and disability. The number represents 1.5 percent of the world’s gross domestic product and averages 20 percent higher than heart disease, the second leading cause of economic loss at $753 billion. 

However, report authors, ACS researcher Rijo John, director of international tobacco control research, and Hana Ross, strategic director of international tobacco control research, stated that the analysis does not include direct medical costs, which would further increase and possibly double, the total economic cost caused by cancer. 

John and Ross leveraged data based on death and disability from 17 forms of cancer and 15 leading causes of death across 188 member countries of the World Health Organization (WHO) for the report. According to the authors, death and disability from lung cancer, colon/rectal cancer and breast cancer account for the largest economic costs on a global scale, and the greatest burden in high income countries. For low-income countries, cancers of the mouth and oropharynx, cervix and breast have the greatest impact.   

Representing an economic drain of nearly $188 billion—the largest on the global economy—are lung, bronchus and trachea cancers, said the researchers, noting that death and disability from these cancers remain consistent across income levels of nearly all nations. 

However, different cancers may represent varying levels of economic impact depending on a country's income. For example, the report noted that across low income nations, cervical cancer accounts for over 10 percent of the economic loss, despite the fact that routine screenings and treatment modalities have dropped the rates of cervical cancer in high income countries significantly. 

While the researchers found that 83 million years of “healthy life” were lost due to death and disability from cancer, life expectancy for cancer patients has increased by approximately three years since 1980. The authors attributed 83 percent of this gain to new treatments and medicines, with medicines specifically accounting for 50 to 60 percent of the increase in cancer survival rates since 1975. 

The researchers have called for a more balanced global health portfolio, to include more health promotion, policy reform, prevention and treatment of non-communicable diseases. Additionally, the WHO has recommended that an investment of as much as three times per capita Gross Domestic Product be employed in order to make an intervention cost effective.